Parents who think that their young children are safe at home when they are indoors might have to rethink the concept after new mega-hit game Grand Theft Auto IV hit the shelves last week.
Grand Theft Auto (GTA) IV was released internationally (including South Africa) on 29 April, and has unleashed - together with the massive build-up, hype, and sales that followed its release - a good dose of controversy about its content.
Players are able to, among others, pick up prostitutes and beat them to death with a baseball bat, kill people in a variety of ways, steal cars, and build their own drug empires.
The game's protagonist, Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, starts the game at the bottom rung of society, leading him to commit wanton acts of violence, transport drugs, hijack cars and assassinate other villainous thugs in an attempt to get to the top of the so-called game.
GTA IV has an age restriction of 18 in South Africa, and in overseas reports the American developers of the game, Rockstar, make no secret of the fact that it is supposed to be for adults only, stating that it is "too intense" for children.
Yet the same report claims that the game is apparently more popular than any other among 12- to 14-year-olds.
Lance Gray, assistant buyer for Look & Listen, says that even at prices that range from R729.99 to R1 112.99, the GTA IV has outsold all others so far this year - even though it was only released last week. The game is available for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
Gray says that the shop upholds the 18-year age limit, and will query any potential buyer who does not seem to meet it. When People's Post phoned CNA in Blue Route Mall, another stockist of the game, it was clarified that the game will only be sold to persons under the age of 18 if they are accompanied by a parent or caretaker.
However, the games are easily-accessible to minors, and two avid (adult) gamers told People's Post that they know of many younger children who also play it.
The possible effects of such a violent game on young children are raising eyebrows.
This is accentuated by recent coverage of the state of primary school children's mindsets - described as "traumatised (People's Post, Lansdowne Edition, 29 April, "Traumatised pupils will be helped"). Many children were said to be "living in a state of fear" due to exposure to violent crime in their community.
Human Sciences Research Council associate professor Andy Dawes says that he has not seen the game yet, but from what he has heard of the content, he would think that such a case would have to be referred to the Film and Publications Board.
He says that even though studies on this game have not been done, to his knowledge, previous studies on long-term exposure to, for example, television material, showed that such material can affect people's behaviour.
He adds that it is very dangerous if children growing up in a violent society play games that justify violence as a problem-solving method; they could become desensitised to the notion of violence.
Juanne Waites, who heads the Training and Education division of Nicro (National Institution for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders) in the Western Cape, says she finds the idea of the game "horrifying".
She says it has been proven that the age of criminals is getting lower as crime draws children in, and that it is worrisome to think that children might now spend their time exposed to violence. Waites stressed that this should not be taken lightly. She recently completed a seminar outlining how people are becoming desensitised to crime, and seem to brush off small criminal acts as everyday behaviour. Even though she hasn't seen the game, she wonders whether such material might not reinforce such a notion.
But the jury is not completely out on the matter yet.
American authors Doctors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, recently published "Grand Theft Childhood - The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do", which challenges the strong link between video game violence and real world violence.
"The conclusion that video games lead to social isolation and poor interpersonal skills are drawn from bad or irrelevant research," they state in their book.